Republicans seek to tap California drought for a political edge

A visitor to Folsom Lake in California's Central Valley walks his dog down a boat ramp that is now several hundred yards from the water's edge. At a mere 17% capacity, the lake has become a visual symbol of California's water crisis.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

WASHINGTON — Beleaguered and outnumbered, California Republicans think they may have found a crucial ally — drought.

Up and down the state’s increasingly dry Central Valley, Republicans have pounded away at the argument that Democratic policies — particularly environmental rules — are to blame for the parched fields and dwindling reservoirs that threaten to bankrupt farms and wipe out jobs.

In his latest campaign video, Republican Doug Ose stands in the middle of dried-out Folsom Lake. At a mere 17% capacity, the usually scenic reservoir favored by boaters and sunbathers looks like the set of “Mad Max.” As the camera pans, Ose declares, “We’re facing a real crisis.”


“Where’s our representative?” he demands, referring to Rep. Ami Bera, a freshman Democrat elected in 2012 on a razor-thin margin, whom he hopes to unseat this fall.

House Speaker John A. Boehner joined the effort recently, flying to Bakersfield and promising to shepherd legislation through the House to divert some of the state’s dwindling water supply to farmers.

“When you come to a place like California, and you come from my part of the world, you just shake your head and wonder what kinds of nonsense does the bureaucracy do out here?” the Ohio Republican said, referring to the long-running diversion of millions of gallons from farms to the habitats of endangered fish.

“How you can favor fish over people is something that people from my part of the world never understand,” he said.

Whether the politics of water can help the Republican Party make gains in this year’s congressional elections remains to be seen. Republicans have bet on the water issue in the past to little avail. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina, for example, made attacks on water-related environmental regulations a major element of her unsuccessful campaign against Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer in 2010.

Already, however, the renewed partisan focus on the issue has complicated Gov. Jerry Brown’s job, as his administration scrambles to develop emergency plans to keep water flowing to cities where the spigots of homes and businesses are in danger of running dry.


And this time may be different.

Across the state’s agricultural heart, crisis is bearing down. Laborers face unemployment, and the owners of small companies that rely on a robust farming industry are panicked. The GOP is leveraging their anger.

Until now, “nobody cared,” said Tony Quinn, an editor of the California Target Book, which handicaps political races. “In a drought, all of a sudden there is rationing, there is no boating, no fishing. People are told not to flush when they pee in the toilet. We’ll be going through all that. People begin to pay attention.”

“Republicans are looking for an issue in this very Democratic state,” Quinn added. “Congressional candidates throughout the Central Valley are going to seize on this.”

Indeed, Republican strategists hope the issue could help in half a dozen districts in and around the Central Valley. In addition to Ose’s race against Bera, Republican strategists hope anger over water restrictions could help them with otherwise uphill challenges to Democratic incumbents Jerry McNerney of Stockton and Jim Costa of Fresno.

Water politics could also help Republicans defend incumbents who might be vulnerable if Brown appears headed to a lopsided victory. Democrats have eyed three Central Valley Republicans — Reps. David Valadao of Hanford, Jeff Denham of Turlock and Devin Nunes of Tulare — as possible targets.

The political advantage exists even though the plan Boehner unveiled last week, which would give more water to farms and less to habitat conservation, stands almost no chance of becoming law. The Brown administration dismisses the proposal as crude and potentially catastrophic, and its odds in the Democratic-controlled Senate are about nil.


Leading Democrats argue that the Republican proposals ignore the reality that California’s water woes are complex and caused by diverse issues. Among them are gambles that agricultural interests took when they invested heavily in operations that rely on unstable water supplies.

Relaxing of endangered species protections would not necessarily free up any water amid a drought this severe. Moreover, Democrats note, proposals to fund large water conservation and recycling programs have foundered in the GOP-controlled House.

“This is a political stunt,” said Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), a veteran of the state’s water tensions. “Their argument is so stupid.”

The drought has already complicated Brown’s efforts to win approval for his long-range plan to build two 35-mile tunnels that would divert as much as 67,500 gallons of water every second from the Sacramento Delta to thirsty cities and farms to the south.

The latest move by Central Valley farmers and their Republican allies to get more water in these scarce times is sure to increase tensions with Northern California voters and their representatives, including Miller, among whom opposition to diverting delta water appears to be hardening.

State officials also worry that the measure Boehner is promoting could upend decades of carefully built alliances among farmers, water agencies, environmentalists, fishing communities and others that are the backbone of the state’s water system.


“What they are doing does not serve a purpose,” said state Natural Resources Secretary John Laird. “It’s not as if we have water left to argue over. We need to triage.

“Some parts of the state are going to have to depend on the kindness of other parts of the state” to get water for their most basic needs, Laird said. “This is not the time to start a fight.”

For Boehner and his allies, however, those complexities may be beside the point. As Democrats struggle to explain the myriad policies, contracts and stakeholder agreements that have left the state unprepared to deal with a historic dry spell, Republicans are offering simpler explanations that appeal to the inland voters they covet.

“The Man-Made California Drought” is the title of a Web page devoted to water at the House Committee on Natural Resources’ site. It prominently features clips from “The Valley Hope Forgot,” a multipart harangue against California water policy by the Fox network’s Sean Hannity.

Nunes, who stood alongside Boehner in Bakersfield, brushes aside Laird’s advice to avoid a fight.

“Laird and the others are all disciples of the NRDC and Sierra Club,” said the congressman, referring to the National Resources Defense Council and the environmental group founded by conservationist John Muir. “They sit in San Francisco drinking $500 bottles of wine, and they want us out of production.”

Nunes, who once brought a bowl of fish to a hearing to make the point that they are treated better than farmers, accepts that pumping more water to farms right now may not be feasible. But the Republican proposal stipulates the pumping would start once water levels are high enough.


“The people who built the water system designed it to withstand a five-year drought,” he said. “But we have just been letting water go.”

And at least some Democrats are taking no chances. Shortly after Boehner’s visit, Costa signaled he planned to sign on to the Republican effort.

His reelection could hinge on it.